It was hard to pass up on Byzantium considering that I am a fan of some of Neil Jordan’s works including The Borgias and Interview with the Vampire. I took a chance on this little-heard-of film and I’m glad I did. It doesn’t rank among THE GREAT vampire films but it was still nice to see a movie where vampires did not glitter in the sun.
Byzantium is a story about a mother and her daughter, both vampires. Clara (Gemma Arterton) works as a lap dancer to support herself and her teenage daughter, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan).
The film opens with Eleanor writing down her secret life in a notebook then throwing the pages to the wind so that no one could read them. Meanwhile, in the club where Clara works, a man shows around an old photo of a woman and asks if anyone knew her. Clara runs out, the man goes after her, the chase ends when Clara beheads the man in her apartment. Eleanor arrives home, Clara tells her to pack, they set the apartment on fire, hitch a ride and end up in a coastal town. Clara tries to earn some money by turning tricks and unexpectedly finds a savior in Noel, a would-be customer, who brings her and Eleanor to Byzantium, a now-abandoned hotel once owned by Noel’s mother. Clara makes Byzantium profitable by turning it into a brothel as she and her daughter settle into a new life.
While Clara has no problems keeping their secret, Eleanor is obsessed with telling the truth. She meets Frank, a young man stricken with leukemia, they become friends and she writes down her life’s secrets for him. Thinking that Eleanor had written a fantastic literary piece, Frank brings it to their teacher. Soon, the secret is out.
There is no shortage of vampire-themed movies. In fact, there are so many of them and there are just as many versions of what a vampire is and how they came to be. In Byzantium, vampires are not the devil’s creatures. There are no religious undertones at all. In Byzantium, vampires have no sharp incisors and their victims do not turn into vampires. There is a special ritual to become a vampire and this ritual is a gift from one vampire to another. In Byzantium, vampires form part of a close-knit brotherhood, and no brotherhood ever includes females.
And that really is the gist of the story. Clara became a vampire two hundred years ago by taking a gift that was not meant for her, and that made her a target for eradication by the brotherhood. The fact that she already had a daughter complicated things even more. That Eleanor became a vampire was merely part of the plan for survival.
Byzantium is definitely not among Neil Jordan’s best projects. It starts slow and the pace doesn’t pick up until the last twenty minutes or so. The dreary atmosphere does not help but the flashbacks to the time of the Napoleonic wars benefit hugely from great production and costume designs.
Eleanor is certainly is the weakest character ever played by Saoirse Ronan. It felt strange to watch her as a lonely teenage vampire. She just seemed unable to bring the character to the level that the inner conflicts of Eleanor required.
But Gemma Arterton, whom I still refer to as Strawberry Fields to this day (her role in Quantum of Solace), shines. Oh, she shines. From an innocent young girl in a fishing village to an unwilling whore to a mother who, for 200 years, continually strives to discover how best to raise her daughter.
Despite its shortfalls, for vampire fans (and I don’t mean the Twilight crowd), Byzantium is still an interesting film to see.